Japanese and Indian troops will kick off 14 days of joint military exercises in India on November 1. The last time troops from the two countries met on Indian soil, there were hostilities.

In Imperial Japan’s last great offensive of World War II, the 1944 invasion of India, Indian troops fought both with and against the Japanese. The forces involved were the British Indian Army – a colonial force that fought with the allies – and the much smaller Indian National Army – a Tokyo-sponsored force created to liberate India from London’s rule.

The assault was halted in the jungles and hills of Kohima-Imphal in some of the most savage fighting of World War II, but on today’s radically different geopolitical chessboard, there is no reason why the two states should not be friends.

“It is ironical; the soldiers of the two countries will be exercising together in Northeast India where once their ancestors fought pitched battles against each other,” said DP Ramachandran, an Indian Army veteran and military history blogger.

But he approved. “I think the Indo-Japanese military exercise is a good thing: India needs friends and who could be better than our worthy foes of World War II?” he asked.

The war games with the Indian Army will be just the latest far-from-home drills undertaken by Japanese troops.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, are now spreading their wings well beyond their home islands. This suggests Tokyo is increasingly confident that the country can deploy a wide-ranging, well-armed military whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s oft-stated desire to alter his nation’s pacifist constitution is successful or not.

Forward defense

The current concept for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces seems to be forward defense – far forward defense.

Last month, some 100 SDF troops joined Philippine and US troops for the “Kamandag” exercises in the Philippines. The drills, which stimulated the recapture of territory, took place about 250 kilometers from the disputed Scarborough Shoal, now occupied by China. And in another “first time since World War II” landmark, Japanese personnel deployed armored vehicles on foreign soil during the drills.

Meanwhile, a powerful battlegroup of Maritime Self-Defense Force, or MSDF vessels, led by the “helicopter destroyer” Kaga, has been prowling the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea on a two-month deployment.

The 19,500-ton ship – almost the same size and bearing the same name as a World War II aircraft carrier sunk in the 1942 battle of Midway – has conducted exercises with British, Indian, Philippine and Sri Lankan naval units, as well as with an MSDF submarine.

During a port call in Singapore, Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukuda, the commander of the MSDF’s Escort Flotilla 4, told reporters that the ship’s deployment was part of Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

And earlier this year, Japan activated a new amphibious brigade – a key component of maritime force projection, particularly when it comes to taking or retaking islands – which has conducted exercises with the US Marine Corps.

Japan has also upgraded defense ties with Australia, New Zealand and even the EU, and has agreed to buy a massive arms package from the United States.

All this is being conducted by a country which, according to Article 9 of its own constitution, is not even supposed to have armed forces.

Rising confidence

Shinzo Abe, who in September won the Liberal Democratic Party’s headship again and hopes to become his country’s longest-serving post-war premier, has a stronger mandate than previous prime ministers to move forward with Japanese re-armament and extra-territorial deployments. His confidence is showing.

“Abe is now confident that the Self Defense Forces will remain a legal organization – right now, it is based on a 1959 Supreme Court decision that said they were constitutional – despite Article 9 of the Constitution,” said Todd Crowell, Japan-based author of The Coming War Between China and Japan. “One new court ruling and the whole outfit could be considered illegal!”

Any such legal challenge looks unlikely. “The Communist Party are opposed to the SDF, but I don’t think people want to open that can of worms,” said Crowell.

In addition to his confidence in fielding a no-nonsense, expedition-capable military, Abe seeks a wider Japanese role in the world.

“He wants to offer more in terms of international security and has a sense of historical purpose, in that his first premiership sort of sizzled, but now he has quite a lot of ambition,” said Alex Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Singapore office.

In China’s shadow

A further element behind Japan’s more muscular military is insecurity: Not only does it face a missile threat from North Korea, it is confronted with a rising China that is busily crafting expeditionary elements within its own armed forces, notably aircraft carriers, while weaponizing reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

China is also innovating a maritime militia of guerilla fishing fleets that are ideal for low-intensity territorial conflicts over islands and fishing grounds in the South and East China seas.

“From what I have heard, the regularity with which Japan’s Self Defense Forces are encountering Chinese vessels and fighter jets – a lot of the time, it never gets into the public domain – is getting far more frequent,” said the IISS’s Neill. “Japan is concerned about China’s burgeoning military might and capabilities, and its ability to patrol through the various straits around the Japanese archipelago.”

China’s muscle-flexing is taking place at the same time that Washington is demanding its allies worldwide must be prepared to take on more of their own defense burdens. Indeed, US President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on alliances have even raised worries in some quarters over the reliability of the United States.

“Trump has very clearly stated that Japan needs to shoulder more of the burden of the alliance and do more to secure itself,” said Neill. “As a former Japanese defense minister said, ‘When it comes to alliances, it is 10% deterrence and 90% reassurance” – and what Abe is finding is that reassurance has been reduced quite considerably by Trump’.”

Trump’s demand for increased defense spending and upgraded capabilities synch with Abe’s own ambitions – and Japan is not alone in flinching at Beijing’s lengthening shadow.

At this month’s Japan-Mekong Summit, leaders from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam joined Abe in expressing concerns about “land reclamations” and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

But Abe’s strategic worldview stretches beyond Japan, Southeast Asia and the East and South China seas: The SDF’s recent naval cruise took them deep into the Indian Ocean.

“Abe coined the term Indo-Pacific back in 2008,” said Neill. “Japan was using that term before it became de rigeur in the Trump administration.” 

Indeed: Washington only rebranded its former PACOM or Pacific Command, Indo-Pacific Command in May. 

Indo-Japanese naval drills and the upcoming two-week ground exercises indicate that Tokyo has found a new friend in New Delhi. India lost a border war with China in 1962 and is still engaged in a frontier stand-off. Military blogger Ramachandran sees good reasons for his country to climb into a foxhole with Japan. 

“It does make sense for India to forge a strategic partnership with Japan in the current scenario with China asserting its hegemony over Asia,” he said.

“It is absolutely essential that a power balance is maintained in the region to contain Chinese belligerence, hence a strategic partnership with Japan – which is the only country in the region besides Vietnam with a track record of military potential that could be brought to bear in support of India in a crisis – seems quite logical.” 

‘No way’ in Seoul, ‘OK’ in Beijing

Still, there is one place where logic does not seem to apply: The obvious hole in Tokyo’s strategic map is South Korea.

Japan and South Korea are both democracies and both share similar values and cultures. They both have separate alliances with the United States, but there is no formal bilateral or trilateral relationship. What divides them is history, a powerfully emotive memory.

South Korea accuses Japan, which colonized Korea from 1910-1945, of white-washing colonial misdeeds, such as Japanese army brothels staffed by “comfort women,” many of whom were Korean. It says Japan fails to teach “correct history” and lambasts politicians who visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of 1.8 million war dead are enshrined – among them, war criminals.

In an atmosphere in which many Koreans believe the colonial era was the darkest period in Korean history, Japanese apologies and compensation tend to be brushed off or turned down. A 2015 deal on the comfort women, struck between Seoul and Tokyo, has been revoked in all but name by the Moon Jae-in administration, which no longer adheres to its clauses.

Earlier this month, on the grounds that its naval ensign is similar in design to that of its wartime rising run flag, Seoul told Tokyo its warship could not fly the ensigns at an international fleet review off Korea’s Jeju Island.

The MSDF, which had attended the same review in 1998 and 2008 without issues over the flag – which has raised no hackles among former enemies including India, the Philippines, the UK or the US –  withdrew in protest.

And this week, a bi-partisan delegation of Korean lawmakers visited the islets of Dokdo, known as Takeshima in Japanese. Japan also claims the islets, which are in the middle of the sea between the two countries. They are occupied by Korean police, but Seoul refuses even to concede that there can be a dispute over what it insists is sovereign territory. Tokyo lodged a complaint.

Meanwhile, Seoul is upgrading relations with Pyongyang in a series of diplomatic and military initiatives that have irked Washington, and are unlikely to please Tokyo, which pushes for a continued hard line against North Korea.

But while South Korea turn its back, Japan’s prime minister is hedging all bets – to the hilt.

In advance of Abe’s three-day China visit, which begins Thursday and includes a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it has been agreed that the two nations will resume naval visits that have been suspended since 2011. It is also being reported in Japanese media that Beijing will invite a Japanese vessel to a fleet review next year.